Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hugo Chávez and the opposition press

Venezuela's President, Hugo Chávez, appears to be working to consolidate his already nearly limitless power. He has refused renewal of the broadcast license of RCTV, the only nationwide television broadcaster that has opposed his government's policies, replacing it with a state-run channel. Venezuela does still have opposition media, including not only newspapers and radios, but also the Globovision TV channel. However, Chávez has removed the most prominent voice from the opposition, charging that RCTV was in violation of the law for refusing to broadcast pro-government programming during the 2002 coup attempt. What caught my eye, though, was an exchange on MSNBC's Tucker program this afternoon. The guest was Medea Benjamin, a prominent activist within the Green Party here in California, and co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. She was the Green candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000, but is now active with Progressive Democrats of America and Global Exchange, an anti-corporate globalization advocacy group. I found myself in the extraordinary position of agreeing with Tucker Carlson against my fellow PDA member.

I'm not going to transcribe the whole thing, but here's a quick summary with some key quotes. Over the weekend, Chávez shut down RCTV, sparking civil unrest in the capital, Caracas. Tucker quoted back a statement that Medea Benjamin made on 2006-03-04: "Another basic myth is that Chávez has limited freedom of speech and eroded civil rights."

Tucker Carlson: Do you want to revise that, given the news that Hugo Chávez has closed the last nationally broadcast opposition television station for criticizing him?

Medea Benjamin: Well, that's just not true, Tucker. What he did is, he didn't renew the license, but there still are television shows and television stations owned and run by the opposition media. I think you hear more opposition to the government in Venezuela than you would here in the United States — that's both in the TV, in the radio, and in the print media.

Tucker: I don't know what you've been smoking, Medea, but you're saying this president just closed a television station because it criticized him, but somehow Venezuela has a freer press than America?

Medea: He didn't close it because it criticized him. He closed it because it participated in a coup against a democratically elected government, his government. If a television station in the United States advocated and was part of an effort to topple a democratically elected government — the Bush administration, let's take; I don't like it —

Tucker: I'm actually reading now from the 360-page white book on RCTV, published by Chávez' government. It accuses RCTV of "showing lack of respect for authorities and institutions." I would think as a self-described liberal you would stand up for the right of people to "challenge authorities and institutions," and yet you're apologizing for the squelching of minority views. Why could that be?

Medea: Well, there are opposition TV press and print media all over Venezuela. I don't know if you've been there, Tucker, but you can go on a Reality Tour with us; you will see it everywhere you go. This is a television station, not that criticized the government, that tried to topple a democratically elected government.

Tucker: Let's be real here: you're throwing a very serious charge out there, a charge for which people have been killed there in Venezuela. I'm asking you a very simple question: explain how a television station can cause a coup. They said they didn't like the president; is that the same as pushing a coup? I mean, what the hell are you talking about?

Medea: They falsified information and got people out on the street. They falsified footage that showed pro-Chávez supporters killing people, which did not happen. They refused to cover any of the pro-Chávez demonstrations. When Chávez came back in to power after the coup, they even had a blackout on him coming back to the government.

Tucker: I wonder if you're even a tiny bit ashamed that you're apologizing for fascism on national television. Do you hear —

Medea: Well, I wonder if you're ashamed of calling a democratically elected government a fascist government.

Tucker: They just shut down a television station because that television station, as you put it, "didn't cover pro-government demonstrations"! You have got to be kidding. You are losing touch here, a little bit.

Medea: It participated in a coup against a democratically elected government. If it was done here in the United States, that television station would not only be not on the air, the people that ran it would probably be in jail right now. You're holding Chávez to a different standard. [Peru, Uruguay, etc.] Why are you holding Venezuela to a different standard?

Tucker: Medea, I think it's very clear that because Chávez hates the United States you are sympathetic to him and willing to make excuses for his anti-democratic, anti-liberal behavior, and it's a shame.

Medea: No, it's because he takes the oil money and doesn't give it to rich oil barons like in the United States, but gives it for literacy and health programs.
Personally, I would use the term "authoritarian" rather than "fascist" to describe the democratically elected government of Venezuela. However, the point remains that President Hugo Chávez did retaliate against a major media outlet for its support of his opponents. Even if RCTV did act illegally during the coup more than five years ago, it's a bit disingenuous to yank their license over that activity now. If RCTV's offense was so grievous as to justify what is effectively a death penalty, then it was certainly grievous enough to demand that RCTV be shut off immediately after Chávez regained power, with open trials of the individuals responsible.

Furthermore, as the EU has pointed out, even if refusing to renew RCTV's license had been justified, the logical next step in a nation with anything resembling freedom of the press would have been to decide by a neutral process who should get the license to replace RCTV. Simply handing it over to a puppet of the Chávez regime is intolerably autocratic; it undermines the cornerstone of free speech and free press.

Thus, while (as is often the case) I have serious problems with Tucker Carlson's views, and most especially with his leaping to "you must hate America" as an explanation, I have even stronger reservations about Medea Benjamin's position. Ignoring the fact that Hugo Chávez has a strong and deep dictatorial streak in his personality serves no useful purpose. It is intellectually dishonest and laughably naïve. Hugo Chávez is not much more a champion of open political dialogue than Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao; Reporters Without Borders lists countries like Gabon, Armenia, and Albania, and more than 100 others, as having greater freedom of the press than Venezuela; in fact, Venezuela is in the bottom third of the list.

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